Qatar 2022: Hart on Mbappé vs Messi and the tactical options open to France and Argentina

“[…] Kylian Mbappé has shown that he can beat almost every player for pace, but to say that is all he possesses would be an insult. He has shown he is not only able to elude his opponent on the inside and outside, but in tight spaces—as he demonstrated against Morocco—where his quick feet can take him past two or three defenders.

“[…] Lionel Messi finally has a supporting cast that can both deliver the final pass and score goals. This allows Messi to spend long periods of the game simply keeping the ball in flow, seemingly not interested, but with his head on a constant swivel—much like a bird on a fence…”

In the following guest column, former Trinidad and Tobago Men’s National Senior Team head coach and 2020 Canada Premier League Coach of the Year Stephen Hart looks forward to the Qatar 2022 World Cup final between Argentina and France:

Argentina captain and superstar Lionel Messi gestures after their quarterfinal win over the Netherlands via kicks from the penalty mark.
(via FIFA)

Please forgive me, I am no writer, but Lasana insists that I make an attempt to put some thoughts on paper. Maybe he needs a good chuckle! Nevertheless, World Cup fever is upon us and I am also in my element.

Allow me to state from the onset, that I have supported Brazil since 1970. In 2006, I obviously supported Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil, while for this 2022 tournament I supported Canada and Brazil.

So Sunday I have no dog in the fight. I will merely sit in anticipation of a glorious World Cup Final—one that will conclude one of the more exciting Fifa World Cups in recent history.

As a romantic, I will dearly love to see a beautiful game in which the star players and want-to-be star players rise to the occasion.

France coach Didier Deschamps (second from right) shows his appreciation to star forward Kylian Mbappé during the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

On one hand, we have the defending champions France—a nation that would love to emulate the legendary Brazil team of 1958-62 with back-to-back World Cup victories.

The French team have succeeded in Qatar despite losing several key players on the eve of the tournament.

Coach Didier Deschamps’ outfit enjoy so much depth that he could replace the injured Lucas Hernandez with his younger brother, Theo, and watch the latter arguably emerge as the best full back in the competition.

Deschamps could also lose his Ballon D’or winner, Karim Benzema, yet see his replacement, Olivier Giroud, become one of the leading scorers in the competition.

Crucially, France can also boast of a player who is without doubt prepared to accept the challenge of being crowned one of the greatest of his generation.

France attacker Kylian Mbappe (right) skips past Argentina defender Nicolas Otamendi (third from left) during a 2018 World Cup contest at the Kazan Arena in Russia on 30 June 2018.
(Copyright Benjamin Cremel/ AFP/ Getty Images)

He has already lifted the coveted World Cup trophy as a teenager, while scoring in the final. This is a player whose running style reminds me so much of the legendary Pelé.

Kylian Mbappé has shown that he can beat almost every player for pace, but to say that is all he possesses would be an insult. He has shown he is not only able to elude his opponent on the inside and outside, but in tight spaces—as he demonstrated against Morocco—where his quick feet can take him past two or three defenders.

He can also finish with either foot and in the air.

Yet it would be laughable to conclude that France are solely reliant on Mbappé.

France playmaker Antoine Griezmann strokes home from the penalty spot during their 2018 World Cup win over Croatia.

Ousmane Dembélé, operating on the opposite wing, also has the capacity to stretch the most organized of defences while the tireless Antoine Griezmann, whose timely arrivals at the top of the penalty area have caused panic throughout this tournament, supports both.

Compounding these strengths is Giroud, a goal poacher extraordinaire and dear I say one of the best headers of the ball in the modern game.

As a result, France have an attack the likes of which Argentina are yet to encounter. Or have they?

Playing Brazil at the Marcaña Stadium in the Copa América final could be considered a similar scenario and Argentina not only coped but managed to come away with the trophy.

Argentina Lionel Messi kisses the 2021 Copa America trophy after their 1-0 win over Brazil at the Maracaña on 10 July 2021.

France are not unbeatable either and their performances in Qatar were more efficient than consistent.

Deschamps’ players are athletically superior to Argentina in almost every position while they possess individuals, all things being equal, capable of turning a game in their favour.

Yet football being what it is, the most democratic of sports, athleticism is not the be all and end all. It is a game played with the brain. And, in terms of vision and execution, Argentina have arguably one of the most complexly well-rounded footballers in recent history.

This is Lionel Messi’s fifth international final, following three Copa América finals and the 2014 World Cup climax—six if you include the 2022 Conmebol-UEFA Cup of Champions against Italy. No other player in history has achieved this.

Argentina captain Lionel Messi runs at the Australia defence during the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

The “armchair athletes” will say he is yet to deliver the Holy Grail. But I am just grateful to have witnessed a player who plays the game in a manner that every child in the street dreamed of playing it.

Messi is a player who can be both creative and destructive when called upon. One who can accept he is part of a team, and who uses his individual qualities for the collective good.

Many coaches and former players cannot accept the manner in which Messi is allowed to play by Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni—supposedly strolling through games.

Yet for those who know and were lucky enough to witness it, Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima and Romario were allowed to do the same for Brazil with great success.

Argentina captain Lionel Messi (right) tries to elude Trinidad and Tobago midfielder Khaleem Hyland during their international fixture in Buenos Aires on 4 June 2014.
(Copyright AFP 2014/ Juan Mabromata)

I struggle to come to terms with this Argentina team, though. They lack team speed and have operated with two of the slowest central defenders in this tournament.

Maybe this is why both full backs pick their moments to join the attack and do so very sparingly.

Somehow they have found a way to get the result. At times their last line, when defending, seems to operate on the verge of panic and desperation, especially when the opposition has an aerial threat.

Twice they led in games and allowed the opposition to find a way back.

France left back Theo Hernandez (far left) Aurelien Tchouameni, Ousmane Dembele and Olivier Giroud during the 2022 World Cup semifinal win over Croatia.
(Copyright Le Parisien / Arnaud Journois)

Contending with Mbappé will be difficult for Argentina, simply because France’s left side contains a double threat. Hernandez usually stays away, allowing Mbappé to play 1v1 when teams defend deep.

Hernandez then has the space and time to arrive late in support, when he can combine with Mbappé, play inside passes to Greizmann, or deliver crosses for Giroud.

More than likely, Argentina will have to defend deeper and the task of containing Mbappé will fall to right back Nahuel Molina, who would have to be concerned with the space behind him. I suspect Argentina will utilize a double pivot in midfield, with one of those central midfielders providing cover to Molina on the inside while defender Christian Romero covers him on the outside.

Argentina defender Christian Romero (left) tries to keep tabs on Brazil star Neymar Jr during the 2021 Copa America.

This for me is where Argentina may struggle, simply because Romero has shown a lack of mobility in these circumstances.

The second midfielder in Argentina’s double pivot midfield line will also have to be alert to Greizman’s late runs, while their wide midfielder will have to cover the space where France midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni would undoubtedly be lurking.

Argentina’s midfield will need to be very disciplined. Having said that, the South America champions have been resilient, learning and adapting tactically with every game. This is largely because their midfield appears to have found balance with Rodrigo De Paul, Enzo Fernández and Alexis Mac Allister.

If they do have a weak link, it is holding midfielder Leandro Paredes, although some may argue he was effective versus Croatia.

Argentina forward Julián Álvarez runs with the ball during their 2022 World Cup win over Croatia.

Confidence can waver even with the great players, with the pressure and weight of the national jersey being more than some can manage. Mac Allister and forward Julián Álvarez, on the other hand, are brimming with confidence and willing to work on both sides of the ball—offensively and defensively.

How Argentina approach the World Cup final remains to be seen. However, with their contributions, Messi finally has a supporting cast that can both deliver the final pass and score goals.

This allows Messi to spend long periods of the game simply keeping the ball in flow, seemingly not interested, but with his head on a constant swivel—much like a bird on a fence.

As always, he will be patiently waiting for the right ball, or a lapse in concentration at the right distance from goal. Then, he will strike with his cross-field runs, reverse passes, through balls, direct dribbling, or shots.

Someone asked me how would France stop Messi? I wish I had the answer.

Argentina star Lionel Messi (left) takes on Croatia defender Josko Gvardiol.

Argentina are a patient team, dogged in their midfield defending, unified, and quite willing to work for each other—although undoubtedly, once again, heavily dependant on the little genius.

I suspect Deschamps will ask midfielder Youssouf Fofana to keep within touching distance of Messi. But he should be weary about paying too much attention to Messi, when you consider their tendency to attack with five or six players.

France may leave gaps that could be exploited centrally by the enterprising link-up play of Messi and Álvarez. It is also a risk to leave Fofana 1v1 with Messi.

Should Argentina be in a position to capitalize early, France could feel the pressure—although I doubt Argentina has the capacity to keep France off the scoreboard.

France star Kylian Mbappé (top) celebrates with goal scorer Oliver Giroud (left) during the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

On the contrary, if France strike early, Argentina have not responded well to being scored upon. In that scenario, I get the feeling that France could run away with this final.

Let us all hope for an exciting World Cup final, void of controversial refereeing and dubious VAR decisions.

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